In Maluku I Feared, Then Faced the Sea

Mar 20, 2023 | | | By Amy Djafar

Photo: Amy Djafar

Nukila Park, Ternate, Maluku | 2,000 words

Translated from Bahasa Indonesia by Lise Isles

Nobody wants to live with trauma, let alone for decades, and so it is with me. Especially because my trauma is wrapped up with a place that’s seen as enthralling, that’s a favorite place of many people: the sea and beach. In the past, never mind going swimming, just crossing the sea by boat or visiting the seaside made me take fright.

My fear grew out of an occasion when I almost drowned, back when I was wanting to learn to swim in the sea as a little kid. On that day, my friend Nova and I didn’t consider that ocean conditions might change even though they had until then been calm. When we were having fun practicing swimming, suddenly an underwater current pulled at us. 

We reached out to try to grab each other’s hand, but there was too much distance between us. My head began to go underwater, while my legs couldn’t reach the sea-floor. I fought to kick my legs as strongly as I could, my eyes blinking open and closed because of the stinging of seawater. My hand groped for the surface, as I hoped there was someone who was watching and could soon help. I started to have problems taking in breaths; I swallowed sea-water. At that moment, I submitted my fate to the will of God. But then, the current that had tossed our bodies around in the water gradually receded, and my kicking in the water successfully brought me back towards the shallows, likewise for Nova.

When going home after this happened, we became aware that there was not a single person all along the beach. It was the middle of the day, so people were choosing to rest in their respective homes. There aren’t many houses in any case on Soagimalaha Beach, in North Maluku, an area where the electricity is on only for a few hours in the evening, and accompanied by the sound of frogs and cicadas. That realization made me voice without stop my gratitude that our fate had not been to die that day. But, afterwards, I no longer wanted to swim.  

From that incident, I grew up with a fear of the sea, even though my house in Ternate – Ternate being a small island within an archipelagic region – is not far from the sea. Shadows of the time I almost drowned played across my mind always, especially when I had to visit family beyond Ternate, something that can really only be done by sea transport between the closely-adjacent islands, by ferry, fast ships, or wooden barge-boats that can transport scooters. Whenever I rode such transport I felt I was going to die out there, and every time, my breathing grew ever-more shallow and rapid. 

I moved to Makassar, Sulawesi, and lived in the house of an aunt, a house that was far from the sea. So that meant I didn’t need to be scared, because I didn’t have to regularly cross the sea or just pass along the coast like I had in Ternate. But when I started university at Universitas Muslim Indonesia (UMI) in Makassar, I again couldn’t avoid the sea. Especially when joining the activities of campus societies, such as UKM Arts Club and UKM Press Club. The locations for their discussions and journalistic writing workshops were often on a beach or island, to create a relaxed atmosphere – for example, they often took place at Samalona or Kayangan Islands, a 15 minute ride from Makassar on a wooden boat. 

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© Amy Djafar

English translation © Lise Isles

Commissioning editor: Wahyu Nur Cahyo

About The Author

Amy Djafar

Amy Djafar is the pen name of Rahmi Djafar. She was born in Tidore, North Maluku, and currently lives in Makassar. She is an academic and journalist who has also written the novels, Elang (Orbit, 2020) and Inti Samudra (Orbit, 2020) and is a contributor to the short story collection Rahasia Keluarga (Gramedia Pustaka Utama, 2022).

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